Monica, which reached theaters last weekend, is the one about the prodigal trans child who returns home to care for her dying mother, Eugenia, who kicked her out when she was a teenager.
The title role is filled by trans actress Trace Lysette (Transparent and Hustlers), who is accorded plentiful ravishing closeups by cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi and sparse dialogue by director Andrea Pallaoro and his regular collaborator, Orlando Tirsdo.
What results is a quietly powerful, nuanced portrayal of a fractured family coming together again, whether or not the participants are aware of it. Gradually, Eugenia comes to realize the stranger she takes into her home is not a hospice helper but the child she rejected decades ago.
Patricia Clarkson, as Eugenia, delivers a tightrope-walk performance throughout the film: does she or doesn’t she know? “It’s about the conditional love I feel for my child, finally,” Clarkson tells Observer. “That’s the journey I wanted to take as this character. I wanted the redemptive quality of Eugenia to be realized.” That tightrope sense of uncertainty, she adds, is central. “The beauty of Andrea Pallaora is he keeps his mysteries, his secrets. He explains nothing. He has the ultimate respect for an audience’s intelligence.”
A friend of Clarkson’s told her she and Trace Lysette were like silent film stars in Monica. “We were called upon to hold so much back and reveal so little, yet we had to live it so fully. Every single day on that set, I had to bring everything that this mother had been through and was going through, with death knocking at her door. She’s in her final month or two. She stopped treatment long ago. She had lived longer than anybody thought she would. She’s not ebbing and flowing. She’s ebbing.”
Clarkson didn’t dawdle over accepting the role. She zipped through the script and was a yes by the end of the day. “It’s probably the quickest response I’ve ever made to a film,” she admits.
“I’d never read anything quite like it. I knew it’d be painful, but I knew I wanted the challenge. I’m a rather animated, gregarious person naturally, but I really had to let Eugenia take hold. I’m not a method actor, so to speak, but something does come over me, something that happens to me when I get to the set.”
Lysette, Clarkson says, has a similar way of working. “Both of us are very emotionally driven actors—and, at the same time, we’re quiet. We don’t need a lot of talking or discussing.” The two first crossed paths two-and-a-half years before filming began in Cincinnati, at a pre-Emmy event. “I saw her across a very crowded room at this party. She’s strikingly beautiful, and I thought, ‘OMG, there’s my daughter,’ and I just went over to speak to her. From the second I met this woman, I instantly felt maternal and hopeful.”
Monica premiered to raves at the Venice Film Festival, and both actresses blissfully attended. “Trace and I got an eleven-and-a-half-minute standing ovation. We took Venice by storm. They called us the darlings of the festival. It was a beautiful time, but it was also a moment for me—to be there to witness the first transgender actress to lead a film in the history of the Venice Film Festival.”
Clarkson, whose energies of late have been spent on television (Sharp Objects and State of the Union), plans a return to the stage next year—her first theatrical venture since 2014 when she co-starred with Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola on Broadway in a revival of The Elephant Man.
Next February, she and Brian Cox (whose most recent triumph is HBO’s Succession) will start rehearsing a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, to be presented in March and April of 2024 on London’s West End, with a Broadway transfer likely.
“What a dream to work with Brian Cox—such a star!” she says. “He’s probably the most perfect casting of James Tyrone that we have had in a very long time. I’m just going to do the best I can as Mary Tyrone. My favorite actresses have played this part. I will have to wipe their brilliance out of my mind and come to Mary on my own.” No one who’s seen her work has any doubt that she will.